Mark Ingram is the best rookie running back coming into the season, and it's not close. He's the Fantasy running back to target from the 2011 draft class.
But Ingram might not finish the season as the best rookie running back. The prediction here is Daniel Thomas will be the best rookie rusher this year.
I know, call me crazy. Ingram has done nothing but solidify his standing with a solid preseason, while Thomas has looked lost. He's now No. 2 on the depth chart in Miami behind Reggie Bush, who was cast off in New Orleans to make room for Ingram.
But if you look at the scenarios that should happen, Thomas has the chance to be better than Ingram this year, and he's becoming a tremendous value pick on Draft Day. With Thomas, you just have to be patient.
That's something Dolphins coach Tony Sparano is learning about Thomas, who was drafted in the second round out of Kansas State. Thomas has struggled during the preseason and has failed to run with confidence. But Sparano said he's seen a difference with Thomas as the regular season gets closer.
"I think whenever he gets the ball a bunch he starts to get into a bit more lather," Sparano said. "He's been good the last couple of weeks. It was just in the beginning where it was overwhelming a little bit."
Thomas told me after the second preseason game against Carolina that the lockout hurt his development. But he said things are "starting to slow down a lot," and he's learning the offense and how to play his game. He was a star in college in racking up 2,850 total yards and 30 touchdowns the past two years with the Wildcats, and he said he gets better as his workload increases.
"I think it will be the same way here," Thomas said of his ability to produce. "It's just a good fit for me."
While Bush might open the season as the starter, it's unlikely he will have or maintain a featured role. He's not durable enough and he has just one 16-game season in his career – as a rookie in 2006. The most carries he had in a season was 157 in 2007.
Since then, Bush saw his carries decline to a career-low 36 last season. He will definitely improve on that since he was limited to just eight games in 2010, but Thomas will eventually emerge as the featured running back for the Dolphins. Even Sparano indicated a concern for Bush's workload.
"I really don't have a great grasp of what that number is yet with Reggie," Sparano said when asked about Bush's carries. "I kind of have to watch it, you know, particularly early when you really want to ride him early and get him going, and that's probably where I've got to watch him the most."
As for Ingram, it's difficult to predict a letdown, but there's a strong possibility he continues to share carries evenly with Pierre Thomas throughout the year. And when you factor in Darren Sproles, that's a three-headed backfield, meaning Ingram will unlikely be a featured running back as a rookie.
He should work at the goal line – he has three touchdowns in the preseason – but he's only averaging 2.9 yards per carry. And there's this lingering knee swelling, which hopefully will go away.
Look, I'm not saying Ingram is going to be bad by any stretch. I have drafted him in as many leagues as possible because he will be an exceptional Fantasy option this year. I just wouldn't be surprised if Thomas is better by the end of the season, and I target him on Draft Day as well.
In looking at their Average Draft Position, you have to take Ingram first. Name recognition alone gets him drafted early since he won the Heisman Trophy and a national title at Alabama. He is being selected as the No. 25 running back at No. 55 overall in Round 5.
Thomas is being drafted as the No. 29 running back at No. 75 overall in Round 7. And, by comparison, Bush is being taken as the No. 32 running back at No. 92 overall in Round 8.
Something you might want to consider on Draft Day is taking Ingram as your No. 2 running back in Round 4 or 5 and then taking a chance on Thomas two or three rounds later as your No. 3 or 4 option. They could end up being great Fantasy running backs for your team.
This rookie running back class has fallen apart due to injuries to Mikel Leshoure (Achilles' tendon) and Ryan Williams (knee), and we might not see DeMarco Murray, Roy Helu, Stevan Ridley, Delone Carter or any of the other members of this rookie class have starring roles. But Ingram and Thomas should play at a high level.
And if things go the right way for Thomas, he could end up at the head of the class. He has the potential to pass Ingram for the No. 1 rookie spot this season.